Immigration probe shows role for federal training

Saturday, May 10, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri police officers next month will get special training to enforce federal immigration laws through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It's training that could have come in handy when state troopers reviewing threats of violence against a northern Missouri lawmaker in 2006 also checked into allegations that then-Rep. Kathy Chinn had hired illegal immigrants on her Clarence, Mo., farm.

But immigration attorneys say that without the special federal training, the Highway Patrol's investigation was at best unusual and possibly on shaky legal ground.

That's because many immigration issues are generally left to Congress and the federal government.

State and local police can ask about immigration status, and are allowed to arrest people when they observe violations. But immigration investigations are left to federal authorities and officers who have been specially trained.

Mira Mdivani, an Overland Park, Kan., immigration attorney, said that without federal training, local police and state troopers have no authority to investigate someone's eligibility to work in the U.S.

And even with the training, said Kris Kobach -- a former immigration law adviser to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft -- it would take coordination with federal immigration authorities.

"In theory they could, but it's really unlikely to do work-site enforcement," said Kobach, now a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He has argued that local and state police have an "inherent authority" to help enforce federal immigration laws.

According to an investigation report obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request, state troopers in 2006 contacted an Ohio company building a feed mill at the Chinn farm about allegations that three Hispanic workers there were illegal immigrants.

Sgt. Brent Bernhardt, a spokesman for highway patrol Troop B in Macon, said troopers were focused on threats to harm Chinn but part of that involved investigating whether people working on the farm were illegal immigrants.

"We investigate any allegation of any type of illegal activity," Bernhardt said. "There is no state statute that covers that, but if we encounter an illegal alien, we notify ICE."

The investigation ended when Agra Erectors Inc. confirmed that one of the workers is a U.S. citizen and the other two had valid green cards authorizing them to work in the country.

Chinn denied allegations that illegal immigrants had worked on her farm during a committee hearing earlier after the allegations arose again this year. A key point of Chinn's denial was the patrol's investigation.

The federal immigration training for Missouri's police is part of a legislative effort to crack down on the state's illegal immigrants, the businesses who employ them, the colleges that educate them and the people who move them into and through the state.

That bill includes a provision that would require the highway patrol to seek the federal immigration training, named "287g" after a segment in a 1996 federal immigration law.

Under that law, the training curriculum is laid out in memos signed by the local police department and the Department of Homeland Security. Only officers who are U.S. citizens, have been in their current position for at least two years and have no pending disciplinary actions are eligible.

It has not been until the last several years that states have begun sending police officers to be deputized through the 287g training. The first to act was Florida in 2002 and Alabama in 2003. Since then, at least 15 other states have sent at least one local police or prison officer.

Immigration advocates, and even some of the nation's police chiefs, have criticized the move because of fears it could make illegal immigrants less likely to report crimes and cooperate with police while stretching local resources too thin.

"ICE is ICE, and they have to enforce the law in terms of immigration law," Mdivani said. "And police are police, and they have to protect people regardless of immigration status."

Six state troopers from Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis are to start their immigration training June 16 at a federal facility in Charleston, S.C. Another four police officers controlled by the state Gaming Commission who are assigned to casinos in Kansas City and St. Louis also are going.

Highway Patrol Capt. Tim Hull said Missouri has not yet signed an agreement for the training, but it will likely gear toward handling illegal immigrants that troopers find during traffic stops and in contact with motorists.

After a gubernatorial executive order last summer, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Water Patrol and Capitol Police now check the immigration status of those they arrest and stop for traffic violations.

Hull said the patrol wants to use the federal training to speed its processing of illegal immigrants identified through those stops. Without immigration training, state troopers can check into a motorists' immigration status by checking with a law enforcement database maintained in Vermont. But once police identify an illegal immigrant, Hull said, they depend on federal immigration authorities to decide whether to detain the person to start the deportation process.

But with the training, a police officer can contact a state trooper who has been deputized to take custody of the illegal immigrant and start completing paperwork to begin deportation procedures.

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